We are through Round 2 (and a little more than that for some teams) in the Group Stage of the MLS is Back Tournament. It has been wild and entertaining and wildly entertaining, and I greatly hope that this is not the last time we see an "MLS is Back Tournament," though obviously I hope that this is the last year we see an MLS is Back Tournament forced by a global pandemic.
It has been so much fun. It is so good to see nuestro futbol again.
And now, one good and one bad from each of the 24 teams down there...
Orlando City SC
Oscar Pareja is already a man with a lot of legacies. He was a truly great player with the old Dallas Burn, and the visionary behind the league's best academy. As head coach in Colorado he led an otherwise moribund Rapids side to one of their best seasons of the past decade, then returned home to Dallas for a five-year run in which they were consistently one of the best teams in the league. That included 2016's Supporters' Shield-U.S. Open Cup double, which was and remains the best season in Dallas history.
That would've been enough for MLS fans to nod appreciatively any time the man's name was mentioned.
But now it seems like he's doing for Orlando what he did (briefly) for Colorado and then for Dallas. It has happened so fast.
Good Takeaway: All those words above? Forget them, just watch this video:
Pareja hasn't just cobbled together a bunch of skilled veterans and thrown them out in a conservative shape then trusted talent and know-how to brute force some wins. He's actively helping young players like Chris Mueller and Joao Moutinho (a criminally underrated attacking LB) level up into something more than just names on the roster, and doing so while playing stylish, winning soccer.
Be happy, Orlando City fans. Be actually happy, because this is not smoke and mirrors like that six-game winning streak in spring of 2018. There is real defensive solidity and attacking balance on display here.
Bad Takeaway: If there's one knock it's that they look pretty far from being able to kill off games by using the ball, and actually let NYCFC back into it after going up 2-0. The Cityzens just peppered Pedro Gallese with shots, though to be fair the Lions did well to limit them to low-quality looks.
Philly have just consistently improved under Jim Curtin, to the point where you almost expect to see linear, year-over-year improvement. And you could argue that's what we're getting in 2020, as despite some hiccups and Ilsinho descending from godhood (he's not the same guy he was last year, pretty clearly), they're finding ways to win.
I'm going to make my analytics friends mad at me, but there's something to be said for grit and knowhow, and after consecutive playoff appearances this team appears to have it.
That's not a perfect pass, but it's a good one. And there's something to be said for eschewing the perfect pass in favor of an early pass that never even comes close to letting the defense get set. If you can attack a scrambling defense you're in a good spot, and Aaronson seems to live by that credo.
Bad Takeaway: And yet for all his workrate and smart off-the-ball movement, he's just not finding the ball very much. When your No. 10 is attempting only 17 open play passes over the course of the game, something is going wrong. Curtin, to his credit, recognizes this.
"Overall we've challenged him from last season, to this preseason to his time with Gregg Berhalter and the [US men's] national team, to now the quarantine period, to get better at making the final ball, to get more goal-dangerous," Curtin said after the match. "And he's really taken the next step. Everybody sees his work rate and ability to run and cover ground and cover distance. If he's going to make it as a No. 10 at the very highest level, and that's the ultimate goal for him, he's going to do it by being a volume player, a player that's on the ball all the time. And he might make a mistake 3-4 times but he's coming again at full speed. So that's something he's worked hard on: His final pass, his throughballs, getting his shot off a little quicker in and around the box. He's taken big strides, but the Philadelphia Union, we're going to be greedy and push and demand more of him because he can play even better than he did tonight.
"We're going to continue to push Brenden because we see how much talent he has."
Curtin's right to demand that of Aaronson, and he's right to demand more of his team because right now the results are covering up a lack of chance creation, and Andre Blake's covering up some defensive breakdown.
Every time NYCFC change coaches they suffer for a bit. Patrick Vieira couldn't win at home his first half-season in charge before turning things around, and then when Dome Torrent replaced Vieira it took about 20 games for his ideas to take hold. And now we're five games (eight in all competitions) into the Ronny Deila era and things ... don't look great.
The question, of course, is whether past is precedent here. Will Deila have the same chops that Vieira and Dome eventually showed? Will he get the chance?
Good Takeaway: Even without Maxi Moralez against Orlando City SC, NYCFC were all over the ball and created chance after chance after chance, many of them through good combination play rather than just having overwhelming talent. If you watch this team build out, possess through midfield and then advance into the final third, you'd be hard-pressed to identify real problems (once they switched out of that 3-5-2, anyway).
In the final third itself they're just ice cold. Some of that is obviously their own fault, but ... Blake was in the Team of the Week in Round 1, and Gallese was in the Team of the Week in Round 2.
It hasn't been great, but I don't think this team should panic.
Bad Takeaway: I don't think they should be unconcerned, either. You don't lose your first four league games as manager if everything's running smooth, and that 3-5-2, even without Maxi, sure didn't make a lot of sense. Deila promised he wouldn't reinvent the wheel and through the early season and then Round 1 of the group stage, he absolutely didn't. In Round 2, he absolutely did, gave up two early goals because of it, and then had to revert.
In Round 3 he got back to something more familiar, and while I don't think you can say "it clearly worked!" I also don't think you can dismiss the mitigating circumstances whole cloth.
Inter Miami CF
I'll admit to being guilty of just kind of expecting Inter to be third in line behind Atlanta and LAFC in terms of recent expansion success. They have the roster for it in a lot of ways, and both the head coach and front office have the pedigree you'd want in terms of building cohesive teams from disparate parts.
It just hasn't clicked yet. And now they've been eliminated, and are the first team in MLS history to lose each of their first five games. That each has been by just a single goal suggests things aren't quite as bad as the record indicates.
A useful reminder that being an expansion team is, more often than not, very hard.
Good Takeaway: This is all coming with a group that is short-handed relative to what a full-strength roster will look like. Sporting director Paul McDonough has promised another DP and another TAM player, and the center backs have had to cycle through because of injuries and suspensions, and Robbie Robinson and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez aren't available for this tournament, and through all of this Diego Alonso is still trying to blend everything into a contiguous whole.
It's a lot, and truth be told, it's been too much. But at the same time ... Inter really did play 30 minutes of great soccer and had the upper hand vs. Orlando City before Andres Reyes had to come off, and they really did control most of the game vs. Philly, and they did greatly limit NYCFC's looks, and when you show stuff like that with a proven coach, I'm of the belief that things will eventually be fine.
But "eventually" might not come until next year. 2020 is for taking their lumps.
Bad Takeaway: Miami splashed out a lot of cash on Matias Pellegrini and Julian Carranza, and thus far the results have been fairly underwhelming (though Pellegrini does have 2a in about 300 MLS minutes). I do wonder, at this point, whether that will inform their decision-making with regard to their open DP slot -- whether they'll go with another young project, or head in the other direction and find a veteran to pair with Rodolfo Pizarro (who's been very good, but not quite great).
Am I asking them to sign James? Yes, of course I am. You should be, too.
The other lurking issue: Luis Robles has struggled, conceding soft openers in each of the first two games.
All-in-all this is very obviously not the start to life that this club wanted, and they will now have some time to get more signings done and think about what comes next.
San Jose Earthquakes
Underpinning everything: Can you win consistently and over the long haul with a full-on man-marking scheme in the modern game? San Jose play a lot of wonderful, attacking, high-intensity soccer, and in tournament play and over Liga MX's shorter seasons, Matias Almeyda's approach has obviously been successful.
So it makes sense that after a slow start, the Quakes have just run rampant over the past three halves of soccer.
Good Takeaway: They still move the ball extraordinarily well, and still overload the flanks, and still create tons and tons of chances. Sure, they spotted the 'Caps two goals off of incredibly funny errors, but they also outshot them 30-7 and utterly deserved the dramatic, 4-3 win. And then while the game vs. Chicago was might tighter and the Fire did a better job of limiting San Jose's chances, Chicago themselves never even came close while the Quakes were ruthless.
Almeyda is made for this kind of thing. I'm not exactly excusing the carnival of errors vs. the 'Caps — Daniel Vega, at the very least, is quite error-prone — but I don't think that should inform the entirety of your opinion about this team.
And yes, for the first time since last July they've got someone besides Wondo putting the ball into the back of the net (though also Wondo is still putting the ball into the back of the net).
Bad Takeaway: Look, it's not a secret. You have to take advantage of the unmarked man and force one of the Quakes attackers to leave their guy, then keep pushing forward:
Once you've pulled one of San Jose's CBs out, you're going to get a good look. Folks understand this at this point, I think, but executing it is very, very difficult.
I know everybody wants to win, and I know that the Sounders have a bad taste in their mouths after crashing out of the Concacaf Champions League earlier this year. But they're playing this tournament with house money and I think everybody knows and accepts that as the truth.
This is the kind of rope you get when you've won two MLS Cups in the previous four seasons and have consistently shown the ability to sign impact players, and an increasing ability to develop them.
Good Takeaway: And so playing with house money means you get to try new things with regard to squad rotation, and new things when it comes to the kids, and new things when it comes to the center back pairing. The results are mixed, but mostly leaning toward "good."
Jordan Morris, meanwhile, is leaning toward "legitimately great." In his last 36 games across all competitions for club and country dating back to last summer, he now has 18g/16a. Those aren't quite Carlos Vela numbers, but they're right around "best season of Ignacio Piatti's MLS career" numbers.
Watch this man work:
I'll admit that I never, ever thought he would be this good, this complete, this ruthless in the final third. With apologies to Diego Rossi, it's Morris who's been the league's second-best winger since last June.
Bad Takeaway: Chad Marshall is gone. Roman Torres is gone. Kim Kee-hee is gone. And thus far the new guys aren't getting it done. Nobody should panic and since this is the Sounders, I don't think anybody actually will panic. They're not that kind of club.
But that doesn't mean this isn't a problem. It clearly is, and it's one that needs fixing.
What comes up must come down, I guess. Chicago were so very comfortable in their 2-1 win over Seattle that it was almost ho-hum, but then they got ethered by the Quakes, never getting pressure to Jackson Yueill and always getting caught ball-watching on the backline. Not a great recipe.
Good Takeaway: A lot of teams, when they meet the Quakes for the first time and especially if the Quakes are buzzing (as they were on Sunday night), just get swamped. There is nothing else in the league quite like their man-marking, and when you combine it with real try-hard energy, it's pretty enervating. Teams can't match and can't play through it and can't stop it.
Chicago mostly did, though. San Jose had the better of the play and better looks, but didn't generate anything golden until Francisco Calvo fell asleep and let Cristian Espinoza sneak in behind. It was an individual breakdown, not a team-wide failure.
Bad Takeaway: Individual errors have undone better teams than the Fire. They can't afford this from their captain:
I mean, this is it right here. Clean it up.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
My Round 1 recap happened before the 'Caps had taken the field, so this is a Round 1 & 2 recap for them. And... oh boy. All the promise they showed in the season's first two games back in March ... it's hard to believe that was real at this point.
Good Takeaway:Ali Adnan scored a great goal vs. the Quakes, and he continues to be one of the most exciting attacking fullbacks in the league. And a couple of the newcomers have shown moments of promise.
Bad Takeaway: It is not possible to name a single thing that the 'Caps actually do well, other than perhaps be dangerous on the counter. They don't win the ball at midfield or keep their lines compact, their attackers don't really seem to work off of each other to get into high-leverage spots, and the backline is ... porous. Very porous:
Shea Salinas is not Lionel Messi. This is just not acceptable.
I wrote at the beginning of the year that given all the personnel changes on- and off-field, as well as the structural overhaul, the 'Caps were almost more of an expansion team than the two actual expansion teams. Add in multiple absences for this tournament and thus far, they look it.
Toronto, with Jozy Altidore healthy, were supposed to be one of the alphas at this tournament, a veteran team with an explosive attack, a match-winning midfield and a defense that finds a way to get it done.
Without Jozy? Obviously it's going to be a struggle, right?
Good Takeaway: Jozy who?
It's not just that Ayo Akinola has five goals in two games, it's the way he's scoring them. His first, in Round 1 against D.C., was an absolute banger — a low-percentage shot that sometimes you hit just right, and it goes in. But if you watch the rest (especially the first two in the clip above), you can see him reading the defense, interpreting his space and adjusting his movement not only to that, but to where his team was in the build-up. And then on top of that you can add the Roy Lassiter-and-Carlos Valderrama-style mind-meld Akinola and Alejandro Pozuelo have, and et voila ... goals.
That duo has been murder in transition and when executing their scripted movements out of positional play. He is 20 years old but looks like prime BWP out there, and it's wild.
The next step for Akinola is to show he can do that against a packed-in defense. It's a massive step for any striker, but especially for one who's trying to fill the shoes of Altidore — the best No. 9 in the league against packed-in backlines.
Bad Takeaway: So about that defense...
Toronto's center backs have piled mistake upon mistake, which is a good way to turn what should be easy wins (i.e., both of their games thus far) into edge-of-your-seat thrillers. They got away with it against Montreal, but obviously did not against D.C.
As with the Sounders, it would not be wise to expect this group to panic, or to bet against them. But there needs to be obvious and significant improvement in Round 3.
New England Revolution
There was a worry last year that the Revs maybe weren't quite as good as their record — or I guess "as unbeatable" — as their record indicated. They gave up tons of chances, rode a hot 'keeper and a hot forward, and generally caught a lot of breaks. It all made them very, very difficult to beat, even when they were being outplayed.
It's been the opposite in 2020. Back in March it was missed chances, and against D.C. in Round 2 it was a sloppy play at the back that cost New England the win.
Good Takeaway: Gimme the "good team that had a brain fart and gave away a result" timeline over the "iffy team that has been on an unsustainable run of good luck and great form in front of goal." Eventually the underlying numbers tell the tale.
And while all the individual greatness that made the Revs competitive last year still exists, they've added some bells and whistles:
There is a lot more to this team than there was, and poor finishing can't destroy that foundation, nor can Antonio Delamea's bad back-pass.
I'm not saying to go out and bet all your money on the Revs. What I am saying is last year they figured out how to turn a lot of losses into draws, so don't be surprised if this year they start turning a lot of even match-ups into wins.
Bad Takeaway: Of course, that might not be the way this works. The concept of "regression to the mean" exists for a reason, and if that's what the Revs do then it's back to square one.
Slight difference, though: It's back to square one with upgraded talent and additional depth compared to last season. And, you know, that matters quite a bit.
Ben Olsen's teams are going to grit and grind their way through games. It's what they've done for 10 years, it's what they're doing in this tournament and it's what has them with zero losses in two games in spite of 180 minutes spent mostly on the back foot. They can't keep getting away with it ... except they do.
In short, they look a lot like the team that had the league's second-best defense in 2019, having conceded only 38 goals. The attacking personnel is different and not clicking quite yet, but keep the goals allowed low and feast on mistakes? That's page 1 of the Benny Ball user's manual.
Good Takeaway: That last-minute Federico Higuain signing is working out pretty nicely, isn't it? The veteran playmaker — genuinely one of the smartest players I've ever seen in this league — has come off the bench to force and feast off of opposition mistakes, and presents a true change-of-pace option compared to the rest of the attackers.
And he obviously represents a real upgrade in terms of depth. D.C. haven't, in recent history, had anybody who could come off the bench and change the game in midfield. Pipa's done it twice in a row.
Bad Takeaway: Toronto FC's collapse — dropping a point after going up a man and two goals — was literally unprecedented. Delamea's turnover was the sort that makes it onto "bloopers of the year" lowlight reels.
It's good to be the beneficiary of these sorts of things, and speaks well to D.C.'s overall ability to stay engaged in games that otherwise feel lost. But that's not a sustainable way to get results. You have to do something of your own to build chances and score goals.
Thus far in 2020, that is not something United have shown the ability to do.
Even when the Impact started off pretty well in CCL play and even after adding DP Victor Wanyama, there couldn't really have been an expectation of real contention. The roster itself is a mishmash of mismatched parts, and while some of them look talented, they also look built for a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Thierry Henry has preferred a 5-4-1 or a 3-5-2. It's not great.
It's now been seven games, only one of which they've won. They've lost three in a row, including both so far here in Orlando. It's not great.
Good Takeaway: At what point does Anthony Jackson-Hamel get a shot? He presents a different look at center forward than does Maxi Urruti, and has shown flashes of real potential throughout his stop-start career:
Jackson-Hamel's basically the Canadian Jonathan Lewis: always productive but never given a run of games. Somehow he's in his seventh year as a pro, but has played only about 2900 minutes. But guess what? In those 2900 minutes, he's got 15g/4a, which is "solid MLS starter" territory (for context, Kei Kamara had 14g/1a last year in 2540 minutes).
I don't see the downside in getting him more minutes at this point.
Bad Takeaway: Let's face it, though, the real issues are in midfield and defense. Henry has preferred to cram his central midfield full of d-mids, and while in theory that should make them a better defensive team, in practice it's caused confusion with regard to who gets pressure to the ball where (go watch Akinola's first goal again) while robbing the side of creativity.
The knock-on effect is that it's forcing the backline to scramble, and thus far the backline is not good at scrambling (go watch Akinola's second goal again).
Real Salt Lake
They aren't exactly purring along like a finely tuned engine out there, but RSL have very quickly settled into an identity: combative and high-energy, spearheaded by a pair of hyper-mobile attackers (Douglas Martinez and Corey Baird) who to get out and press everything. They make it very difficult to build into good spots, which has meant that the clean-up work done by the defensive midfielders and defenders has generally been a lower degree of difficulty.
Team first, last and always.
Good Takeaway: RSL are one of only two teams in the entire tournament who have yet to concede a goal, and that's despite playing vs. the Rapids and Minnesota United, two of the higher-scoring teams in the league back in March. Neither is prime Barcelona, but both can hurt you in various ways and RSL have just more than weathered all of it. Their backline — which starts three Homegrown RSL academy products in Donny Toia, Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera — has thrived.
Having Everton Luiz pick up where he left off last year (simply excellent) is nice as well.
Bad Takeaway: Even under the best of circumstances this isn't the most explosive or creative attack, and having Albert Rusnak limp off early vs. the Loons means that their Round 2 scoreless encounter was played under far from the best of circumstances.
It remains unclear whether or not Baird can level up like Mueller's done this year, or like his former college teammate Jordan Morris did last year. It remains unclear whether Martinez can score at the MLS level, or if any of the other forwards on the roster can do the necessary hold-up work and defensive work to earn a spot over him. It remains unclear whether or not they can do any damage on set pieces.
They've played four games in 2020, and scored three goals. Two of them belong to 31-year-old midfielder/forward Damir Kreilach, and the other to Rusnak. That's not enough.
There is definitely a level of quiet confidence — or maybe even as much as a real swagger — to this team. They were written off last year for various reasons, and they were written off heading into this tournament for various reasons, and then they went down to Sporting KC and it seemed like all the write-offs were justified.
And now it doesn't.
Good Takeaway: Doing what they've done on the defensive side of the ball without Ike Opara is one of the biggest shocks of the tournament for any team. Opara was immense in 2019, fully deserving of his Defender of the Year shout, and it was hard to see a way this team could defend at anything approaching that level without him.
Yes, Sporting absolutely left some goals on the table in the first 60 minutes of Round 1. But the Loons thoroughly outplayed them over the final half-hour, and then basically didn't allow RSL to get a sniff for the entire game.
Bad Takeaway: I think you could make the argument that Opara's absence has hurt this team more in attack than in defense, as without him RB Romain Metanire can't get forward early in the play. Or at all, really, as in two games he's only managed one key pass and zero passes completed into the 18 in 11v11 situations.
And so the attack has predictably suffered. They're not able to get any width and have struggled to create penetration, and thus far the attackers haven't really been able to adjust for that.
This was supposed to look like March, right? Remember back in March when Sporting blitzed out of the gates, scored goals for fun and looked the part of a team that would bounce back from 2019's misery en toto?
Turns out 2019's not quite over yet, as Sporting still don't seem comfortable in any phase of defense.
Good Takeaway:Khiry Shelton has come back from Germany a changed man. The big winger, always a wonderful passer, wonderful presser and fast as hell, always looked the part of a guy who could put up numbers. But he always lost minutes because he ... never put up numbers. Shelton has just never, at any point in his career, been a reliable finisher.
He's now got three goals in four games in 2020, including one in each of the first two group games. He has been a terror on the right.
Bad Takeaway: Look, Sporting got the win against Colorado, but this is how they defended when they were 11-v-9:
There's been a lot of that. This team is just dying to give results away, and needed a stoppage-time deflection to avoid doing so here.
The Rapids had a lot of dark-hose buzz heading into this thing, largely based upon two things: They were presumably solid defensively, and they would be demonic on set pieces.
Thus far they've shipped five goals in two games and scored zero on set pieces. The run they had during the back half of last season was remarkable, but if they're not going to be the best team in the league on restarts anymore, they're probably going to be in some trouble.
Good Takeaway: The reclamation process for Lewis — scoring that goal above — and Kellyn Acosta continues apace. The Rapids bet big on unlocking productivity from these two obviously talented players, and there is mounting evidence that both bets were good.
I'm going to assume Lewis will start the final Group Stage match, for what it's worth. He offers a directness that none of the other winger options manages, and at some point you have to let him play through the "young player" mistakes and just get him out there because he gets you goals. 10g/8a in ~1700 MLS minutes is a statement, and Robin Fraser should listen.
Bad Takeaway: The set-piece stuff is very, very worrying, as Colorado don't have the talent to just brute force results without it.
Their defensive performance is also worrying, as they just haven't scrambled as well as they did down the stretch in 2019, or back in March. Maybe these are both blips. Or maybe these are both giant, flashing warning signs.
Columbus Crew SC
Are they the favorites? It sure suddenly seems like it, as they've got the best by-the-numbers defense and something close to the best attack, led by a red-hot No. 9 and a redder hotter No. 10 and a rotating cast of wingers. And they haven't even unleashed a healthy Milton Valenzuela yet!
I think everyone expected the Crew to be good, or even VERY good. But they've been a level beyond that.
Good Takeaway: They look polished and in sync and awake to danger — or opportunity — in a way that nobody else in the tournament has approached. The Red Bulls are switched off for a half-second here, and they're dead:
It's all working as it's supposed to.
Bad Takeaway: There were no bad takeaways from the win over the Red Bulls, save maybe for Derrick Etienne, Jr.'s finishing. When you have to go all the way down to the fourth winger on the depth chart to find a negative, you know things are looking good.
New York Red Bulls
Kemar Lawrence called it a "rebuilding year" on his way out, and both Michael Murillo and Bradley Wright-Phillips made similar noises when they left Harrison. The team that set a then-new points record in 2018 has largely been disassembled.
It shows. RBNY will surely push back against the "rebuilding year" moniker, but it's hard to argue with at this point.
Good Takeaway: From the Round 2 loss there literally was no good takeaway. Columbus were constantly able to play either over or through the RBNY 4-4-2 mid-block, and a good chunk of that came simply from winning 50/50s or, as I wrote above, being alert to opportunities/danger that the Red Bulls were half-step too slow for.
Bad Takeaway: It was a gruesome, one-sided beating. The Red Bulls didn't register a single shot on target.
On the other side of the ball there's just very little that suggests the 4-4-2 mid-block is working, and should be here to stay. Yes, they beat Atlanta with it, but all those gaps we talked about after that game...
Columbus didn't just find those gaps; Zelarayan lived in them, as did Darlington Nagbe.
And then there's this:
You see an incomplete pass. I see a team that advanced directly into the attacking third, on the ball, numbers up against a scrambling defense.
The RBNY wide midfielders and fullbacks were so disconnected that there was zero reason not to hit that same ball every time. If it's complete, great! If it's not complete, it doesn't matter because there's nobody for the Red Bulls around to win the second ball.
It's a real big problem.
After 18 months of this, it's pretty clear that the roster and the fanbase are just crying out for any sort of stability. Obviously it's too soon to say that they've discovered as much, but a win's a win. The fact that said win came off the foot of a young centerpiece makes it doubly sweet.
Good Takeaway:Frankie Amaya had a hit. The defense held up. Jaap Stam changed the team's shape and it seemed to help rather than hurt things.
Did it all come against a nine-man Atlanta side missing their best player and truly in flux for the first time in their existence? Yes it sure did. Does it count as a win regardless? Yes it sure does.
Bad Takeaway: Why are you booing Tom? He's right!
This team is still in desperate need of lots of work.
And yes, here they are, legitimately in flux for the first time in their existence. The Five Stripes have only rarely been threatening and have at no point been disciplined, and it looks quite like they'll be one of the first teams going home.
An early tournament exit is not something
they've experienced before
they're used to
Thank you to the Crew fans in my mentions reminding all of us about the 2017 playoffs!
Good Takeaway: There was nothing good to take away from that 1-0 loss to Cincinnati, save for the lack of injuries.
Bad Takeaway: I think it's pretty clear that they are totally and completely lost without Josef Martinez, whose hold-up play is underrated, whose threat to run in behind the defenders is underappreciated, and whose goalscoring is unparalleled. Without Josef there's no room for Ezequiel Barco and PIty Martinez to operate, and the sum total of Atlanta's possession has not been enough to move the ball quickly, rearrange the opposing defenders and open up gaps. They are stuck in first gear.
Another worry: the best deep-lying midfielder on the team thus far has been 36-year-old Jeff Larentowicz, and while 36-year-old Jeff Larentowicz is very good, he's been showing his 36 years. Which is a lot.
My opinion throughout 2019 was that Josef's greatness covered up a lot of blemishes. Now without him in 2020, all those blemishes are starting to show.
Just on paper, the Timbers looked like one of the most stacked teams in the league heading into this thing. But they looked like one of the most stacked teams in the league throughout all of last year as well, yet played pretty static, idea-less soccer. It was rough.
Last year is last year. And hell, even their two-game start to the aborted season back in March might as well count as last year, because this looks like a new version of the Timbers.
Good Takeaway: Here's what that new version looked like:
Here's the scouting report from my guy Chris Rifer:
Three things have been important this week:
- The Eryk Williamson-Diego Chara partnership has been really functional in balance and their ability to step into the final third and add a body to the attack or switch the point of attack
- They’ve really nicely used positional flexibility in the attacking midfield level to create overload and width without...
- Bombing on their fullbacks early in possession, which has limited the number of times their center backs get isolated in space.
Co-sign all of that.
Bad Takeaway: As good as it has looked at times, the final touch has mostly not been there for the Timbers. Jeremy Ebobisse scored a low-percentage screamer and Diego Valeri finished a nicely worked sequence, but the Timbers had a ton of final-third entries that were promising and just... fizzled.
And on the opposite side, even with Portland's fullbacks pinned, Houston created a bunch of looks. If Alberth Elis had brought his finishing boots, this segment would look very different.
The best attacking team in league history doesn't have their superstar, who happens to be the best attacker in league history. What Carlos Vela did last year, and then kept doing this year in the CCL... there's just no replacing that. It should be impossible.
Turns out it's not. Nine goals in two games in Orlando for the reigning Shield champs, including a record six in this 2020 version of El Trafico.
Good Takeaway: Relentless, fast, creative, ruthless, flexible, young, dynamic, experienced, wily... every single positive descriptor you can apply to a team's attack goes right here. Just look at this bloodshed:
Diego Rossi has leveled up and looks like a $20 million attacker. Eduard Atuesta has leveled up and looks like a $10 million CM, as does Mark-Anthony Kaye. Brian Rodriguez has started producing. Latif Blessing is Latif-ing, and adding a clearly healthy BWP to this is just unfair. Unfair.
They have scored nine goals in two games without Vela. Rossi is the new king of El Trafico. They play the best soccer in the league, and the prettiest.
Bad Takeaway: Part of what makes them so fun is they take a lot of risks, particularly with regard to playing out of the back and the positioning of their fullbacks. They leave themselves to bad moments off of bad turnovers, and that's how they shipped three vs. the Dynamo and two more vs. the Galaxy. If they were anything less than the most explosive attacking corps in league history there'd be every reason to doubt their ability going forward.
In fact I still doubt their ability against cagier teams, and am greatly looking forward to how they look in the final group stage game vs. the Timbers. Portland countered LAFC out of the U.S. Open Cup last year, remember.
Things were never going to be fully perfect, but I'd argue that life under Tab Ramos is off to a very promising start for the Dynamo. One very reasonable way to look at the result against Portland: Ebobisse finished his low-percentage chance, and Elis didn't finish any of his many, many low-percentage chances. Goals change games.
Good Takeaway: When Portland's goal changed the game, Houston did not shrivel up and die. They were able to still push forward and defend credibly while attacking pretty well. Darwin Quintero, who's playing as an inverted left winger, was dangerous every time he came inside and got on the ball, but also worked hard defensively. Elis still looks up for it (and no way he deserved that second yellow).
They did basically everything at pace and with a purpose, and while single-game xG is problematic, this doesn't mean nothing:
They are clearly a little too shot-happy from outside the box, but lots of teams are shot-happy from outside the box when they spend most of the game trailing.
In general I am much more bullish on Houston than I was two weeks ago.
Bad Takeaway: For the Dynamo to level up, Elis needs to level up. We've seen wingers like Morris and Rossi go from "young star with potential" to "week-in, week-out match-winner with high-end production." Mueller might be making that jump right now as well, and maybe Rodriguez, and maybe Shelton, and maybe Aaronson out of attacking midfield.
Elis, at 24, is still the same player he was when he came to the league at 21.
To be clear, Elis is still a hugely talented and very productive player. But if this is the level he's going to be at for the duration, then he's not an apex, go-to player. And that lower's the Dynamo's ceiling.
Same with Mauro Manotas, by the way.
This is a crisis and Zlatan's not around to bail them out anymore. Guillermo Barros Schelotto has stayed ultra-reliant upon veteran defenders who have not delivered. They don't defend well as a unit, and when they have to scramble it's almost always a disaster.
The midfield lacks balance and the team as a whole plays with no clarity of purpose. It's not good.
Good Takeaway: There is no good takeaway from this week. Losing 6-2 to your rival shouldn't happen unless your rival has Messi.
Bad Takeaway: Yes the build-up is lovely, and yes David Bingham's spill is poor, but nothing about this goal is inevitable:
This is just Rossi doing the smart, fundamentally sound thing: crashing the box for a potential rebound. And this is Emiliano Insua just watching him do it.
When you're out-gunned you can't let yourself be out-worked as well, especially in a rivalry game. That was the story of this El Trafico, and the fans are right to demand better of their once-dominant team.